Memory/Character Essay: Thirteen Examples
You know? I still vaguely remember that time when I did something wrong. My father drove me somewhere far away and stopped the car (In hindsight, it was probably just a few blocks away from home.) While my mother was looking bewildered, he told me to get out of the car. When I refused and clung desperately to the chair, he stopped and left me with an ultimatum. Do better in school or next time I’ll give you a bowl and leave you here.
Knowledge is important. Therefore, school is important. Learn, learn and grow, else all that awaits you is a life on the streets, dressed in rags and dirt with only a bowl in your possession. Is that? Is that that type of job you want?
Alarm rings at 5:50 a.m.
I stop it and continue lying on my bed. I have a second alarm coming up at 6:10; the purpose of the first one is to get me slightly awake. When the second alarm comes I throw my blankets off, hurry to brush my teeth, wash my face and get myself dressed. 6:10 a.m. on a Saturday. That’s ten minutes after six o’clock. In the morning. On a Saturday. What is a young boy of only fourteen years of age supposed to do at 6:10 a.m. on a Saturday? Sleep would be the answer. But for the past few weeks of summer, I had been going to work with my father for each Saturday. They were short a person you see, one of my uncles came up with a case of really bad back pain and couldn’t work for a while. It’s the type of job where that is the norm. It’s not uncommon to overexert yourself when working in a Meat Shop in Chinatown after all. I waited with my father at the table for the minivan to come. My uncle drives it over at around 6:40 and we would carpool to work. The car reeks of meat. It was unbearable at first, but this is the fourth consecutive Saturday I have been told to work at my father’s store. It would take fifty minutes to get to the workplace, so I shut my eyes and tried as best I can to fall asleep.
We knocked on the glass door behind the partially opened rollup gates. The co-owner of the store comes earlier with some employees to fire up the ovens in the back and oversees them roasting the ducks and pigs for today’s sales. He spots us and strides quickly over to open the door and we greet each other. I enter to the same stench of meat that was present in the car, only stronger. The store was a simple place. It had red floor tiles and slightly off-white wall tiles. No doubt those were brilliantly white when the store first opened. Going inside the store you’ll see immediately to the left the raw meat display case. The glass where you looked into it was littered with price tags and tape marks of where older tags used to be. On the right side of the store is the small cooked foods section. This is where you’ll see the assorted Chinese roasted meats, Siu Mei. When the store is opened, Roasted Duck, Soy Sauce Chicken, Char Siu and other meats are hung up by the window. Below that would be assorted innards, and hung by the wall would be a large roasted pig and freshly roasted duck waiting to cool. A bit further along on the right side are the refrigerators with various frozen meats (Sometimes you can spy pig brains in clear plastic containers) and packaged goods. On the left side is the butcher station, where meat is carved either to the buyer’s specifications or for the purpose of displaying it. If you walk back from this area, you’ll find a cold storage and a kitchen. The basement houses more cold storages, a door to the back alley and a filthy little bathroom.
I went over to put on a white apron and start the morning task of putting the box of ginger by the front of the store and put the bowl for the bean sprouts on an empty crate next to it. I’ll have to dump in the bean sprouts when more customers come in. Afterward I prepare the cooked meats section by bring out the sauce containers out of the fridge and pour the tea eggs back into the warmer. Then tear off some butcher’s paper, dampen it with a wet towel and stick it onto trays. I have to do ten of those for placing the packaged raw bird meat on display in the open fridge. That is the first hurdle of the day; the packages were fresh out of the cold storage and freeze my hands while I futilely attempt to distinguish between the various chicken types. Afterward would be breakfast consisting of a bread roll and milk tea from the nearby bakery.
In the butcher area, one of the workers and I packaged the chicken into plastic bags. Those were brought cleaned and gutted. The chickens were covered in the slimy fat and blood, cold to the touch but not as bad as the frozen ones I handled earlier. The feet were stiff. I have to force them into the empty cavity, and it was just as likely to go in as it is to pop out and scratch you. Then reach into a bag of innards, gizzards and livers, and stuff one of each into the chicken as well. Then bag and knot it. The slime sticks to your hands. After I dumped the bagged chickens into the open fridge I hastily went to wash out the oils and blood.
The pig shoulder bone. My father had one of the workers teach me how to carve out the meat from the pig shoulder bone. He says, cut the meat close to the bone without cutting the bone, cut it out in one piece, swiftly and cleanly. So as an example the worker cuts out the shoulder bone swiftly. Try it! Do what he had done! Ah no, he says, that is the wrong way of holding the knife. He cuts another one to show. Try it again! You have seen how he did it? Ah no, he says, if you hold the meat that way, you might overshoot and cut yourself. Here look at this again. The proper way of holding the knife, the proper way of holding the meat; know that and try again. How are the results? Ah no, he says, the meat is ruined, how can we sell something that looks like this? Frayed sides, the product of too many shallow cuts and an unsteady hand. It loses the gleam of a well cut piece of meat, ugly and unmarketable. How many more do I have to cut before it retains that shine? In the end, I was only able to carve a few of them right. I was too slow to do more before the other workers have finished.
Soap and water! You can never have too much soap and water. Hot water is good for washing off the oil and blood. Wash it off, but afterward cut the pork ribs, and it gets bloodied again. Wash it off, and carve the pig shoulder bone and it gets bloodied again. Wash it off, wash it off, and wash it off. It never comes off.
So is that the type of job you want?
The morning passes; around 9:00, the store starts getting busy; work at the front counter for cooked meat sales. Nonstop efficiency! The butcher gets the order from the customer, grease flies everywhere! The floor is covered with cardboard to prevent slipping. Prepare the metal tray for the butcher, then when he puts the meat in, hurry and throw the sauce in and close the lid. Bag it and sell it to the customer. Inevitably the grease would get on my hands. I would use the lulls in activities to wipe off the stainless steel countertop, and in the process clean my hands.
The bustle of the marketplace! There is no time to sit, no time to rest. Mandarin customer? Talk to the lady next to me, I can’t understand what you are saying! Confusion! What is the price for this item, I ask for the tenth time. I remember the prices of the cooked foods, eight fifty for half a roasted duck, sixteen for the whole, fried chicken legs are a dollar a piece, tea eggs are three for a dollar, and most other cooked meats were by the pound. The raw meats come with a price tag from the raw section when the butcher processes them. But what are the prices for the box lunches? The dried goods? The items in the cold fridge? Half your work potential is lost when you don’t know the prices. I was slow, slow, slow!
It is also around those hours that it is possible to spot my father working around the front counter. When the store is really busy, my father would come out from the raw meats area and help out as a cashier. Rarely, he would also act as the butcher in the cooked meats section when the normal butcher needs to take a quick break. As the co-owner he has to know the ins and outs of working at all sections of the store. Know the workers and know the customers! Repeating customers are like friends! He chats with them with his loud voice (A loud voice, a stigma of working in a loud place. Not so out of place in Chinatown, but so engrained that it follows him everywhere, such that even in quiet places he is loud) and a smile on his face while keeping an eye on the line. To be curt and courteous!
At 2:00 we are allow to take a quick break to eat lunch. Vegetable and soup is cooked in the kitchen and brought up front, where the workers scoop out rice and cut their choice of meat to go along with it. I scoop out a generous portion of rice for myself and asked the butcher to cut me some soy chicken. This is the only time you are guaranteed to be able to sit. I count down the remaining hours from the clock across the room. Generally we start cleaning up at 6:30, lock the store to customers at 7:00 and close at 8:00. Lunch takes around fifteen minutes, so there is five hours and forty-five minutes of suffering to go, I think as I sat quietly in the basement eating my lunch.
Roast meat! Duck, Chicken and Pork. Oily, salty and sweet. Savory foods with matching aromas. Good food, good food. My father brings it home sometimes for the family to eat. Gobble it up, eat heartily! But my father doesn’t eat the meat he brings back. Not the sweet and salty soy sauce chicken. Or the ever popular Char Siu, literally “fork-roasted” pork. Nor Roasted Pig that my grandfather is so fond off. He does not eat any of it in the dinner table. Year in, year out, six days a week, for nearly every lunch, he has to eat this meat. I sat eating. How long would it take a man to despise having to eat this every day of his life? How long would it take me?
So is that the type of job you want?
At the front counter, besides me and the butcher, my aunt and another woman work as cashiers. How would I describe her? She was a quick worker, fast with her hands, can talk back to the customers. Then again that’s moot; they are all more or less like that. You simply can’t survive in Chinatown without being fast and quick-witted. When the store is packed, they work at blazing speeds. When the store is less busy, she would take out some 1oz sauce containers. Those are to be filled with the various sauces for the cooked meat. Sweetened soy sauce for the Soy Sauce Chicken and Char Siu, ginger scallion oil for the White Cut Chicken, duck sauce for the Roasted Duck. My father left me with one piece of advice when working here, and that is to do things automatically. When having been asked to help once, do it. When having been asked twice, do it. Then afterwards, be of help before being asked. On this cue, I check for customers, and seeing that there weren’t so much that my aunt can’t handle alone, I go and help her.
Put the cups down and fill with sauce. As she does that, I start lidding them and sweeping them into a container. Slow! For every one I lid, two more takes its place. Customers come and we hurry to attend to them and then hurry back to resume lidding. When the table is full, she starts lidding too. Continue; continue until all the sauces are contained! Continue in monotony, only trying to increase your speed! The sauce is the life blood, do not spill it! It is the work of a machine, so become a machine.
So is that the type of job you want?
The day ends as the customers slow to a trickle. Return the sauces to the cold fridge, watch as the workers take away the grease-stained cardboard. The butcher packs all the unsold meat into bags to be refrigerated. A worker pours detergent on the floor and three proceed to scrub it down. Hot water is poured out into every crevice, and stray pieces of meat are washed out from under. Sometimes a penny or a dime would be washed out, which would be quickly be picked up and put onto the countertop. When the whole floor is wet and soapy, that is the cue! Take arms with the squeegee and along with the army of workers, push out the waste water to the streets! A lone worker scoops up the solid waste and dumps it into the trash bag.
The end of the day! Take off the apron and relax your legs. The workers trickle out, my father closes the shop. We wait for our uncle who owns a butcher shop a few blocks away to pick us up. Wearily and tired! Sleep in the minivan until our house appears. The stench of meat sticks to you. The oil, the grease, it sticks to you. Greet my mother! Then rush to the bathroom to take the long-awaited piss and step into the shower. Scrub it off, scrub it off. Scrub all of it off. Scrub it off and think…
…think to yourself, is that the job you want?
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